Bielsa Leaves Leeds

Gracias Marcelo

All good things come to an end.

The wonderfully crazy Marcelo Bielsa era at Leeds United finished on Sunday when the club announced they had parted company with their mercurial manager after three and a half seasons.

Bielsa leaves Leeds.

A February haemorrhage that had seen Leeds ship 20 goals and slip to two points above the relegation zone signed the death warrant of the local hero, whose popularity nevertheless remains sky-high in West Yorkshire.

Many a Leeds fan would still have swapped a defensive, prosaic consolidation of their Premier League status for relegation with all guns blazing under Bielsa.

Fantasy football is seductive and Leeds fans have not had much to cheer about for the last decade and a half.

The Argentine's reign at Elland Road has been a swashbuckling streak of joy and pain for Leeds fans and terrific entertainment for neutrals, full of cavalier convention-breaking and rollercoaster football.

What a shame we will not see six or seven players sprinting to join in an attack again every time Leeds win the ball, a high-octane version of the tiki-taka wave breaking on the shore of the opposition goal.

Adios too to Bielsa's bucket and his bilingual press conferences, where his portentous pronouncements and sheepish little interpreter made for a curiously riveting spectacle.

Yet there was plenty of method in the madness. Bielsa was by far the most determined, hard-working and serious of league managers, analysing the opposition to the nth degree. No wonder he put a bed in his office.

English football had not welcomed such a hermetic genius for a while and Bielsa's Leeds produced a playing style as distinctive as Bob Paisley's pass and press Liverpool, Pep Guardiola's Camp Nou-inspired Manchester City or the long balls of Graham Taylor's Watford and Dave Bassett's Wimbledon.

Few managers can expect a hero's farewell after being sacked for a string of bad results, but on Sunday at Leeds' Thorp Arch base, Bielsa was cheered and clapped away from the training ground while his players queued up to praise him online. When chief executive Andrea Radrizzani said it had been his "hardest decision", for once a club's mea culpa sounded honest.

Bielsa mural

The club have announced plans for a permanent memorial to El Loco at Elland Road, which does not quite tally with their dispensing of his services.

But nobody should be surprised that after a litany of hammerings in 2021/22 and one point in 18 the bell had tolled for Bielsa.

This season Leeds have shipped five at Manchester United, six at Liverpool and seven at Manchester City, as well as four at home to Arsenal, Man Utd and Tottenham.

With a dozen games to go the Whites could well fall out of the cash-rich Premier League back into the ruckus of the Championship, a more competitive league from which it is notoriously hard to escape.

Leeds were unlucky with injury this season but the enforced absences of Patrick Bamford, Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha exposed a shallow squad and by extension, a lack of financial backing from the board. This January the transfer window closed with no new players coming to Elland Road.

At the point of Bielsa's exit, Leeds were first in the Premier League in terms of sprints and kilometres run, second in hits to the woodwork, sixth in total shots taken, ninth in passes made and twelfth in goals scored, yet they sat 16th in the league.

The other statistics, of which the data-driven Bielsa was also painfully aware, showed Leeds were the worst for conceding goals and accruing yellow cards, first for tackles made and their goalkeeper Illan Meslier had made more saves than any other in the Premier League.

The price of their all-out attack was a sieve of a defence, too frequently pierced by canny counter-punches. Bielsa forged an onslaught at both ends, which made for a thrilling spectacle, but a goal difference of -31 shows he had got the balance wrong.

With Leeds, it is easy to diagnose a familiar case of second-season syndrome, where a new kid on the block runs rings around the old guard, before the tormented get wise to their tricks and do not get fooled again.

Tottenham's 4-0 win at Elland Road on Saturday was a microcosm of the situation. Leeds funneled forward as usual and hit the woodwork twice but Spurs picked them off clinically on the break, making the most of Leeds' lack of bodies at the back.

In the same fixture last season Leeds had triumphed 3-1 but this time Spurs won with ease, Stuart Dallas' failure to find the net having dispossessed Hugo Lloris emblematic of his side's malaise.

More goals could have made up for the multiple breaches at the back but without Bamford they lacked a cutting edge and too many shots flew high, wide or struck the woodwork. They palpably lacked strength in depth.

Bielsa remained resolute and unrepentant in his final press conference, insisting his way was not for turning. Yet in the aftermath of another thrashing, the directors did not believe him anymore and pulled the trigger.

"Everything that has not been attempted is imagined as the solution," Bielsa mused post-match on Saturday, sticking to his guns. "The style has been shown to work in the Premier League," he had repeated pre-match, "and the effort of the team cannot be doubted because this has been the most intense team in the league for a couple of seasons."

A ninth-place finish in his first season in the top flight is good evidence of the former, but tactics constantly evolve and there is no forever formula for how to play football. When it came to a Plan B, Leeds looked unable to adapt.

The man whom Pep Guardiola called "the best manager in the world" and who inspired former pupils like Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone to take up coaching reins was not Superman in the end.


That said, Bielsa has graced England with his presence and refreshed domestic football with new ideas, a strong personality and glorious diversion. He leaves with plenty of plaudits.

The city of Leeds, England's fourth-largest metropolitan area, had lacked a top-flight team for 16 years before the Argentinian arrived.

Bielsa not only hauled the Whites back to the Premier League but in 2020 won the Football League Championship, their first trophy for a full 28 years.

He made his mark on the club and city and Leeds fans will always think fondly of his magical residency there.

The rest of us will not forget him either.

Gracias Marcelo.

Bielsa Related

Bielsa's Boys

Bielsa's Leeds Breathe New Life into EPL

Bielsa & Spygate

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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